Review: Slammerkin, by Emma Donohue

The interesting thing about working slowly through my TBR pile(s) is that quite often, I find that the reason I haven’t read the fiction books is that they are not quite my jam. It’s all these books that I want to be my jam — like Emma Donohue or CS Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy — but something inside me knows that they will not be. And that is why I have been putting them off. But no longer, friends! I have three huge stacks of TBR books, and I am going to READ THEM ALL BY GOD.

What Slammerkin is not: Steamy. At all. My coworker who gave it to me said it would be, and I think now she was basing that on the cover, rather than having read it. Which is fine. But I was just expecting it to be more like the sexy parts of Tipping the Velvet, and less like the sleazy street parts of Tipping the Velvet.

What Slammerkin is: A book about the damage inflicted by limitations on women’s choices in ye olden days (the 1700s). The protagonist, Mary, is a clever, independent-minded girl born to poor but honest parents. One part dreams of pretty clothing plus three parts RAPE lead her into a life in prostitution in London at the age of fourteen, which is (with gin) okayish until she has to skip town to save her own skin. Thereupon she goes to live in a small town in Wales, working as a servant and assistant to a seamstress who was once a friend of her mother’s. Though Mary perpetually dreams that her life will be more, there is never any way of putting her ideas into practice. And eventually she (spoilers) kills her mistress and gets hanged. The end.

I did not enjoy Slammerkin but writing this review has talked me into it a little. I’ll tell you why that is.

Mary is a basically ideal historical fiction heroine. She’s clever; she likes to read; she’s witty and smart-mouthed; she’s not intimidated by people and their bullshit; she wants her liberty, and she wants to have nice things. She even has a historically useful marketable skill, as she’s a gifted seamstress and is quick to pick up new embroidery patterns and methods. All this is par for the historical fiction heroines course.

But Mary, unlike many heroines of historical fiction, is not ExceptoGirl. Mary lives in a time where these characteristics are far more likely to get a girl killed than rich. Her desire to get more out of her life serves her ill, ill, ill. She’s raped and thrown out of her house, and because she has no money and can’t make money any other way, she turns to a life of prostitution. Maybe she could make her living as a seamstress, but we’ll never know because she cannot get together the capital to make it happen. A smart clever lower-middle-class woman in the 1700s who resents bending her will to people stupider than she is does not, realistically, attain great heights. She ends up in jail. That is how it really probably would go.

Given this, I found it interesting that the reader’s guide at the back of the book seemed to think Mary was such an extremely unlikeable character. The questions were all like, What were the things Mary did that you liked the least? When do you think was Mary’s doom sealed? On a scale of one to ten how much did you hate Mary? (I am exaggerating but not that much.) I kept thinking, yeah, but if she’d been able to get her shit together and open her own dressmaking shop — staying at this same level of ruthlessness, this same level of friendliness — there would have been no talk at all of unsympathetic characters. She’s totally sympathetic, but she’s just in a super shitty situation all the time. Her most relatable, modernest characteristics are often the ones that destroy her.

Basically, if you are ever feeling frustrated with the ExceptoGirls of literature, Slammerkin can be your antidote. You can read it and think about the wretched miserable life your most frustrating ExceptoGirl would actually have had. And either that will vindictively please you, or else (as in my case) you will be like, “You know what? ExceptoGirls are maybe not so bad after all. Maybe I do not want all that much realism in my historical fiction.”


30 thoughts on “Review: Slammerkin, by Emma Donohue

  1. I think it all depends on WHY you read. Do you want reality (blech) or fairy tales? I, an Ostensibly Adult Form of An Early Fan of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, prefer the latter.

  2. Thank you for wording exactly why I did not finish this book and doing so far better than I’ve managed. And it’s a book that definitely does depend on why you read. I think I’d be more inclined to finish it now because I have a better idea what to expect of it. (But we’ll never know, I suspect.)

    • Hahaha, yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend finishing it. There are all these points at which Mary could be — not happy, exactly, but happy enough — and she just doesn’t choose to do those things. You understand why, but it’s still sad.

  3. I was totally going to flee. But thank you. (*chuckles* This review made me think of Catherine Cookson heroines, who really live the hard life, but do not generally get hanged. Instead they sometmes get rescued by influential dudes that are smotheringly in love with them, and they survive to be all like, “Ugh. This SUCKS. He’s kind and good and all but he is driving me insane, and I don’t even CARE that he also rescued my beloved little brother from the mines, he has GOT to stop being such a SMOTHER. I’m going out to buy a pretty shawl, and too bad if he thinks I’m flirting with the shopkeeper.”)

  4. I liked Slammerkin, but the first half much more than the second half. Mainly because Donoghue’s done a shitload of 18th c. research (it’s her favorite century), and I love period detail. A lot. So I was like “Oh! The 18th century is interesting to me for pretty much the first time!” But the ending seemed (for me) to come out of NOWHERE and I didn’t know it was based on an Actual Thing That Happened until the postscript, so it was like “…oh. Ok. She killed her with THAT? That’s weird.”

    Donoghue’s short stories are, IMO, way better than her long novels. Kissing the Witch is awesome, and I really liked The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits.

    • Oh yeah. The other thing for me was that I hate the rotten 18th century. I liked the second half better because she wasn’t a prostitute. Her being a prostitute made me feel actively sad, and every time I thought I might be able to stop feeling quite so sad, I instead felt sad anew because everything was so tawdry and wretched. And the 18th century was the worst.

      Your recommendation re: Donohue has been noted. I am not usually a short story person but that could change.

  5. I experienced a similar thing reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin, intense frustration at the woman’s behaviour that I found unreal and could not relate to but realised it was because I was watching her from my own perspective and not thinking about the situation she was in and how her reaction to what happened to her was her only course of action given the constraints on women at the time the story is set.
    Good to see someone recommend Kissing the Witch as I have it on my TBR pile for this year.
    Thanks for your review, very thought provoking.

    • Oh, interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of The Awakening in quite the same way because Kate Chopin was writing about a time and place to which she also belonged. Which for some reason makes everything more bearable to me.

  6. “Punishingly depressing” and “ExceptoGirl” (I checked out the link there – perfect!) – you’re increasing my literary vocabulary here, Jenny! I’ve dabbled in Emma Donahue a bit, meaning I’ve stood in the bookstore reading bits of the latest bestseller-du-jour, but haven’t quite been able to bring myself to actually sit down with one. But now that you’ve spilled the beans on Slammerkin I’m feeling just a wee bit tempted to try it. I am intrigued by your analysis about the heroine being destroyed by her most relatable, modernist tendencies. Thought-provoking review – thank you.

    • Hahaha, glad I was able to introduce you to the ExceptoGirl concept — it’s one of my favorite new words invented by the blogosphere.

      I read and enjoyed Room — though I probably won’t want to read it again — but this was just, God, so depressing. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it. Maybe you wouldn’t find it as unbearable as I did!

  7. Books that show what would happen in real life can be so utterly depressing! I haven’t read this one, and don’t think I ever will. Funny, I’ve thought for a long time that I really ought to read CS Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy as well, but couldn’t even get through the first book. O well for that. I feel a twinge of guilt every time I read a post mentioning it, though, that it’s something I’m really missing out on?

    • Hahaha, I’m late responding to this comment, but if you saw my post about the first of those books you’ll know that I don’t feel I’m missing much by skipping out on the latter two.

    • It’s nice when one turns out to be exactly my thing though! I’m slowly reading my way through Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and finding it really interesting. But it’s the first (I think) of the TBR reading project that I’m going to end up keeping.

  8. Oh, I always think I want less emotional anachronism in my historical fiction, until I get it, and then I flinch away in agony. See: The Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland

  9. What usually separates out an ExceptoGirl to me is that she considers herself an exception to other girls, bringing a heaping pile of misogyny to the table. An actual exceptional girl in historical fiction—perhaps not realistic, but hey, it’s fun! I just don’t have fun when ladies hate on ladies.

  10. We-ell, I have to confess I actually like accuracy in historical fiction. And I get very mad at Exceptogirls and start yelling ‘No WAY could she POSSIBLY think like that/act like that/be like that – whatever happened to the reality of social horizons??’ But I understand that I am the exception to the general rule these days. It’s just that I wonder why people bother placing the story in the past if they are going to have people act like it’s the present. Isn’t that the point of the past? That it was different? Or is it just about the frocks? I get confused.

    • I think some people are distressed and confused by the past, and they may prefer an alternative past that’s more like now — cleaner, and less inequality, and better medicine (except when it provides a convenient tragic death), and fewer stenches, and fewer restrictions, and taking far, far less time to travel between point A and point B than it actually did. Among other things. So it’s mostly about the costumes and about defeating the restrictions that are still allowed to be in place in order to be defeated, most of the time.

      As said upthread, it depends on why people read, somewhat.

  11. Oo, this sounds really good. Strange that the reader’s guide is so biased – I haven’t read many of them but they seem to use more obvious themes and from what you’ve said Mary sounds a pretty good character. I’m liking with leavesandpages said – your analysis. I actually read the spoiler, I generally don’t, and it’s got me really interested.

    • I’ve probably totally exaggerated how mean the reader’s guide was. It seemed mean at the time because I was sorry that Mary had had such a shitty hand of cards. It was probably more neutral than I perceived it.

  12. Hmm… interesting. Doesn’t sound like my kind of book at all, but definitely interesting, fiction as reality instead of as escape. I tend to be more about the escape.

    (For what it’s worth, I adore C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy.)

    • I tend to be about the escape as well. And another thing is that this period isn’t a period that interests me. I think I’d have been more interested in the social challenges etc. if the period had been, say, colonial India. But 18th-century England bores me very very much.

  13. I’ve never really had any interest in reading this one until I picked up So Many Books, So Little Time by Sara Nelson recently. She basically says this book is all about fashion. Clothes, clothes, clothes…which she didn’t expect. I was kinda into the idea after that.

  14. Oh, I don’t have a problem with girls who have the event filled lives or the proto-feminist thoughts, they existed after all (ladies doing things, succeeding in public forums and respecting themselves despite the patriachy, totally a deal in history as you know). I like those stories. But maybe those girls could not be the only girls getting the wonderful lives and more importantly maybe they could not hate on all the other girls around them for being different than superspecial old them/typically feminine/kept down by the patriachy? That’s what drives me to drink over Exceptogirls, all the ‘I am going to be a famous aviatrix and not like those.other.girls who giggle and want childrens and are probably uneducated too!’ lady hatred. I know those women existed as well, but must they so commonly be the heroines of our modern books?:)

  15. So I just realized that we read this book during almost the same time frame and managed to never mention it to each other. (Or did we, and I just forgot?) I thought it was a tightly written tragedy– unlikeable Mary and all. I liked it for the craft of it a bit more than the story. But I didn’t love it the way I loved Astray. Have you read her new short stories yet?

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